May 16, 2016
Interstellar (2014): a recap (part 1 of 3)
[Note from the editor: This is part one of a multi-part recap, with future installments to follow on a regular basis. Enjoy, and check back soon for part two!]
Interstellar is a 2014 science fiction movie directed by Christopher Nolan, based on a concept by producer Lynda Obst and theoretical physicist Kip Thorne, both of whom worked on the Robert Zemeckis movie Contact, a film with which Interstellar shares some resemblances, including star Matthew McConaughey.
The idea was to create a modern hard sci-fi drama in which (as Obst once said) “the most exotic events in the universe suddenly [become] accessible to humans”, and the film originally had Steven Spielberg attached to direct back in 2006, with Christopher’s brother Jonathan picked up as screenwriter in 2007. It wasn’t quite in development hell per se, since everyone involved felt that the movie needed several years to properly get off the ground, but studio politics meant that Spielberg effectively dropped out in 2009 and Christopher Nolan was brought on in 2012.
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Nolan, wanting to “encourage the goal of human spaceflight”, wrote his own script and merged it with his brother’s, so the screenplay really belongs to both of them (which is pretty standard for how the two make movies). After the success of their Dark Knight trilogy, as well as the positive reception for their previous pet project Inception, Interstellar was one of the most hotly anticipated releases of last year, especially when the trailers were well-received.
When the movie finally came out, the bulk of filmgoers could be divided into roughly two camps: those who claimed this was one of the greatest and most inspiring movies of the decade (many of whom in turn thought that anyone who didn’t like the movie just didn’t “get it”), and everyone else, who shrugged their shoulders and thought, “eh… it’s okay”.
I’ll be honest… I’m pretty much in the latter camp. But I may or may not be the intended audience, and a second viewing might change my mind. Let’s take a look.
The film opens documentary-style with some elderly people (among them Ellen Burstyn) narrating what life was like back in “those days”, which for us is some not-too-distant dateless future where humanity is facing global extinction. Meaning that literally the first thing we learn is that our heroes will definitely succeed. Okay. Kind of goes against the “rule of drama”, but what’s done is done.
We learn that the Earth has been subjected to massive dust storms that have induced a global crop blight, meaning that most of humanity is in the farming business, since we’re running out of food. There are nice little details here, like how dishes and cups are turned upside down when setting the table for dinner so they won’t get covered in dust, and little snapshots of daily life that the movie could have used more of, but are appreciated nonetheless.
Our hero Joseph Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), or “Coop”, is in bed, having a nightmare where he relives the time he crashed a high-altitude jet plane. That’s when his young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy) comes into his room to wake him. She complains about a ghost in her room, but Coop tells her there’s no such thing as ghosts.
The two go downstairs to have breakfast with Murph’s older brother Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and maternal grandpa Donald (John Lithgow). They all live together on Coop’s farm, where he struggles to grow corn in the face of both the blight and his own hatred of growing corn.
Murph complains that her ghost knocked her model of the Apollo lunar module off the shelf and broke it, for which Tom calls her a “dumbass” for believing in ghosts. Coop concedes that “ghosts” are not very scientific, but after Murph reminds him that he once said “science is about admitting what we don’t know”, he tells her that if she wants him to believe in her ghost, she has to go the extra mile and try to prove it scientifically, a challenge she accepts.
And for those who saw this and Transformers: Age of Extinction in the same year, it’s kind of weird how both sci-fi movies seem to be about genius engineer widowers eking out a living on a farm with their daughters before being called to adventure due to a government conspiracy. I’d like to think Michael Bay got a glance at this movie or its script and thought, “yep, that’ll be my premise.”
Coop drives his kids to school, since he needs to attend a parent-teacher conference. Along the way, he notes that his neighbor is burning his crops because they’ve been hit by the blight. He also lets his daughter mess around with the gear stick (while Tom calls her a dumbass again) just in time for them to blow a tire. Tom annoys Murph by saying this is due to “Murphy’s Law”, the scientific principle she’s named after, which Murph thinks means “bad things will happen”. But Coop clarifies it actually means “anything that can happen will happen”, so it’s obvious Coop is so science-y that he names his (favorite) children after scientific adages.
They end up chasing and capturing a low-altitude Indian Air Force surveillance drone that has long since gone off-course, wanting to grab its solar cells that can power an entire farm. We learn in this scene that Tom is the most practical-minded of the family (since he wanted to fix the tire first), and also that he might literally drive off a cliff if his dad doesn’t tell him to stop (though he has the sense to at least ask); both of these things will matter later. Coop lets Murph land the drone after he hijacks it with his laptop. Murph wants to let it go because “it wasn’t hurting anybody”, but Coop tells her, “It’s got to adapt, just like us.”
At the school, Coop is told that Tom has great test scores and will “make an excellent farmer”, but he’s also told that his scores aren’t high enough to make it into college. Apparently, colleges are very selective these days on account of, you know, Armageddon and all. But Cooper takes this as tantamount to calling his son an idiot, especially since he himself is a well-educated pilot and engineer. But the school principal (David Oyelowo) says they are a “caretaker generation” and need to focus on farming.
Cooper also learns that Murph got in trouble for bringing in one of Coop’s old high school textbooks instead of using the approved “corrected” textbooks that say the moon landings were all faked as part of an elaborate hoax to bankrupt the Soviet Union by making them waste billions of dollars on “useless machines” like rockets (or MRIs, which Coop says would have saved his wife).
Murph’s teacher (Collette Wolfe) explains to Coop that education now needs to focus on teaching children to take care of the current planet, and not distract them with talk of leaving it. Coop tells the teacher he’s going to treat Murph to a baseball game for this, and the administrators respond by suspending Murph.
Back home, Cooper is told that some kind of magnetism is messing with his tractors, and he hears a noise in Murph’s room, which he discovers is books falling off her shelf, just as she claimed her ghost did. Murph says she’s thinking of trying to communicate with her ghost through Morse code, to which a distracted Coop says, “I don’t think your ghost is trying to talk to you.”
He fixes the tractors but is at a loss to explain “the anomaly”, but Grandpa Donald is more interested in what happened at the school. Coop says he’s angry because “it’s like we’ve forgotten who we are: explorers, pioneers… not caretakers.” Donald reminisces about when he was a kid (back in our time, presumably) when new gadgets were invented all the time and everyone was spoiled by this, and he tells Coop that this world isn’t so bad, and Tom will do fine as a farmer.
He says that Coop’s problem is that he was born in the wrong era, either forty years too late or too early (which may qualify as a Chekhov’s gun). Coop remains bitter that humanity is more concerned with the dirt than the stars, but Donald tells him that what he’s bitter about is simply that he was good at something, but never got the chance to do it.
After some more documentary scenes with the future old folk, Coop and family are at the baseball game. Coop tells Tom that the school says he’s going to follow in his footsteps, and Coop thinks that’s great, but none of his family believe him, as they all know he hates farming. But Coop says that all that matters is what Tom feels, and Tom says he likes the idea of being a farmer. Suddenly, an alarm sounds, and a massive dirt storm hits, so they drive back home and try and wait it out.
Murph realizes that her bedroom window is open, but when they go in to close it, they discover that the dirt is falling in a clearly defined pattern. It’s actually landing in binary code (rather than Morse), which Murph attributes to the ghost.
Coop tells her to sleep in her brother’s room for now, and spends the night in her room. The next morning, he smiles at her and tells her it’s not a ghost, but some sort of gravitational anomaly, seeming more pleased than she is at this. He decodes the binary numbers and learns that the code is coordinates. They take out a map to find the location, and Cooper heads off to find it, with Murph hiding in his truck so that she can tag along.
They arrive at the coordinates at night and discover a seemingly decommissioned military base, which apparently belonged to NORAD, only to be discovered and captured by unseen men.
Coop is interrogated by a robot named “TARS”, formerly used by the Marines, who demands to know how he found this location, but Coop only wants to see his daughter. They’re interrupted by Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), who tells him his daughter is fine.
She then takes him to see her, and she’s in a conference room with Amelia’s father, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), who Cooper already knows from his days as a pilot, along with men in suits who still want to know how he found this place. He and Murph tell them about the code they got from a gravitational anomaly, which piques the interest of the men at the table. But Coop refuses to tell anything else unless he gets assurances that they won’t be killed… which everyone laughs off, because as they explain to him, they aren’t a sinister government organization. In fact, they’re the remnants of NASA.
Professor Brand shows Coop a spaceship they’re working on, while Coop asks why NASA is still around when the government shut them down for (and the movie quietly throws this in here and moves on, so you may have missed it) “refusing to drop bombs from the stratosphere onto starving people”, which I guess is the other reason the moon landings were retroactively covered up.
Brand explains that when the government realized that killing people was “not a long term solution” (so… did the government commit genocide anyway? Are we just going to gloss over this?), they rebuilt NASA in secret, since public opinion (which matters to a government willing to commit mass murder, apparently) wouldn’t be in favor of “wasting” money on a space program rather than solving the food crisis, even if such a program were the only hope of saving the human race.
Brand explains that corn, the last vegetable humanity can still grow in the face of the blight, will eventually die, and is in fact already starting to die out, even though they’re growing more than ever. The human race will soon starve to death, and the blight will probably kill off all the oxygen, so those who don’t die of famine will simply suffocate (which will likely be Murph’s generation).
In other words, mankind is doomed because the Earth doesn’t want us anymore, so the only solution is to leave. In fact, Brand has already overseen a dozen secret missions, called the Lazarus missions, where astronauts were sent out to find new planets for humans to populate.
Cooper points out the flaw in this: there’s nowhere in the solar system that can sustain human life, and even the next nearest star is over a thousand light years away. So where were the Lazarus missions sent? Brand refuses to tell him unless Cooper agrees to fly the spaceship, since he’s more experienced than the actual team they’re sending. He tells Cooper that this means his appearance here is no accident: “they” sent him here to lead the mission. Cooper asks who “they” are.
“They” turn out to be mysterious beings who communicate through gravitational forces—just like Murph’s ghost—who opened up a wormhole near Saturn that the Lazarus missions were sent through, leading to another galaxy with twelve potentially habitable worlds in reach. Essentially, these unknown entities have decided to throw the human race a lifeline.
The Lazarus missions were each piloted by a single individual whose job it was to fly through the wormhole, see if the planet they landed on was sustainable, send back a message through the wormhole saying “yay” or “nay”, and wait (in special hibernation chambers) either to be rescued, or more likely die, since whoever comes for them won’t be able to visit all twelve planets even if all twelve are deemed safe. The leader of the Lazarus missions, Brand explains, was Dr. Mann, “the best of us”, whose picture is one of the few we don’t see hanging on the conference room walls. And one system, as it turns out, has three habitable planets, and that’s what NASA is aiming for.
NASA has two plans: Plan B is to send a team through the hole with 5,000 frozen human embryos to identify a safe world, meet up with at least one of the surviving astronauts in the star system, and begin the process of colonizing the planet; Plan A, however, is Brand’s special project: the entire NASA facility is actually a massive grounded space station, and Brand has been studying the gravitational anomalies to find out how to harness the power of gravity to get it off the ground.
Unfortunately, he’s been unable to solve the equation, so Brand explains that the hope is that Cooper and his crew will find mankind a new planet, and by the time Cooper returns to Earth, Brand will have solved the equation and the station can save as many people as possible and take them through the wormhole to their new home. All Cooper has to do is trust him.
Cooper and Murph return to the farm and Murph runs to her room crying, because her dad has agreed to the mission and will be leaving them. Donald and Cooper talk it over, with Donald hoping Coop isn’t doing this so he can finally get his chance to pilot a spaceship. Coop retorts that even if that’s true, it doesn’t make him wrong.
He goes on to exposit, “We farmers we sit here every year when the grains fail and we say… next year. Well, next year ain’t gonna save us.” He says that “mankind was born on Earth; we were never meant to die here.” Donald tells Coop that Tom will be alright, but that he needs to settle things with Murph, “without making promises you don’t know you can keep”.
Coop goes up to see Murph, who’s still crying and angry at him. Coop tries to comfort her, repeating something that Murph’s mom once told him: “Now, we’re just here to be memories for our kids,” and that now he understands what she meant: “once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future”.
Murph retorts that he said ghosts didn’t exist, and he admits that he meant he can’t be her ghost, and that “they chose me”, and Murph was the one who led him to “them”. Murph says that’s exactly why he can’t go, and that she figured out what her ghost was trying to say when it knocked books off her shelf: “Stay”, which Coop dismisses as just Murph trying to convince him not to leave.
Coop gives her a watch and says that when he’s in space, time will change for him, and when they get back, they can compare how long he’s been gone. Coop laughs that when he gets back, they might be the same age. This makes Murph realize that he has no idea when he’s coming back.
He tells Murph that he loves her forever, and promises her that he’s coming back, leaving her in her room crying, but not before another book falls off her bookcase. By his car, he tells Donald everything is fine, and says goodbye to him and Tom, telling Tom to look after the place until he comes back, and telling Donald to look after his kids. He drives off and Murph runs out calling for him after he’s left, and we immediately cut to the launch.
The crew consists of Coop, Amelia Brand, Dr. Doyle (“Dead Man Walking #1”, played by Wes Bentley), and Dr. Romily (“Dead Man Walking #2”, played by David Gyasi). Also along for the ride is TARS, who turns out to have been programmed with a humor setting so he could “fit in” and help everyone “relax”. After making a crack about betraying the humans and blowing everyone out of the airlock, Coop asks him to dial his humor setting down from 100% to 75%, to which TARS complies.
Their spacecraft, the Endurance, links up with the rest of the ship, which is already floating in orbit, with the whole locking and docking sequence being done noiselessly since there’s no sound in space. Once aboard, they pick up another robot called CASE, and Brand talks to her father via video feed, who quotes the Dylan Thomas poem “Do not go gentle into that good night”, before the crew prepare for a two-year hibernation sleep on their journey to Saturn.
Amelia tells Cooper about the three astronauts they’re hoping to meet up with: Miller, a biologist, whose planet is closest; Edmunds, a particle physicist who Amelia seems reluctant to talk about; and Mann, “the best of us” who we learn inspired the others to go on the Lazarus missions with him. Amelia says that what she loves is that for all the death and danger they’re about to face, nature isn’t evil, so the only evil they face is what they take with them, and that this crew represents “the best of humanity”.
As Amelia goes off to hibernate, Cooper asks TARS if she and Edmunds were close. TARS says he “wouldn’t know”, but Coop deduces that they were. He leaves a video message for his family, and on Earth, Professor Brand delivers it to them, though Murph walks away. Brand tells Donald that Murphy is bright, and he might have a place for her at NASA under his tutelage, which Donald considers, since she’s brighter than her teachers.
He then asks Brand about the crew, and Brand tells them that the next time they hear from them, they’ll be coming up on Saturn. Cut to two years later, as the Endurance reaches Saturn, a tiny little dot orbiting the giant planet.
So the first act is over and… honestly, this movie is better than I remembered, though that’s partly because this time I have a better idea of where they’re going, and can appreciate things I liked more this time around.
Christopher Nolan strikes me as the sort of director who on the one hand isn’t necessarily the best or most comfortable with emotion or human drama, with his movies tending to have a sort of detached and clinical quality to them; on the other hand, he seems to be aware of this limit, and he has an eye for talented actors and a skill at handling them—mostly, by just picking the right people and letting them do their thing. So the overall tone of the direction is kind of impersonal, while the people on screen are allowed to show off their range and give us depth. The dialogue, as usual for a Nolan film, is lots of speeches and exposition, but while the script might be page after page of unnatural exchanges, he actually gives his performers the freedom to pull it off (take note, George Lucas).
I also like the pacing so far. This first act, everything I’ve wrote so far, only covers the first hour of the movie, but it does go by relatively quickly (there are a lot of Chekov’s Guns in this part, of varying levels of importance, hence the length). The main issue I have is that a lot of this… doesn’t really go anywhere. I could really compare it to a well-made horror flick: the characters are given a lot of development and setup that increases the impact of what happens later on in the movie, but at the end of the day, that isn’t what this movie is about.
The only ones who really matter are Cooper and Murph (Anne Hathaway’s Amelia isn’t really in the first act that much, despite being the second main character), clearly because Murph is a stand-in for Nolan’s own daughter. Despite the epic length, most of the cast will turn out to have existed to explore ideas or play second fiddle to the father/daughter relationship. Basically, the first act is good, but in retrospect, there is a lot of superfluity, like it belongs to a different film.
Part of this is the genre. This is intended to be a hard sci-fi film, one focused on scientific accuracy and using a story to explore scientific concepts and ideas. It’s a genre that isn’t really about character development in the first place, so Nolan devoting attention to this is a mixed blessing. It’s welcome, and well-executed, but in the long run, it gives us the dreaded take on “love” we get later on.
Also, while I appreciate and like the detail given to the blight, I feel it really could have been any generic “doomsday event” and it would have worked just as well, and frankly the way humanity reacts to this (which we are told, not shown) is the most implausible and cynical part of the movie, as if the film is trying to suggest that without supporting NASA, the planet is doomed, because humans as a whole are gullible, shortsighted idiots. Also, since NASA is the only one working to save the species, this means “‘Murica saves the day” is the subtext yet again, which would be more acceptable in a movie that wasn’t intended to be extremely grounded and intelligent.
At the end of the day, the premise is an excuse plot, and the most unrealistic part of the movie, less because a blight is improbable, and more because I have a hard time buying that this is the way the planet would (not) deal with the problem.
More on that next time, in part two of my Interstellar recap. For now, the wormhole beckons…